If there’s an award for Comeback Writer of the Year in Colorado, it would certainly go to Stephanie Kane, who returns this week with a new mystery after a lengthy hiatus.
A Perfect Eye launched on Sept. 1, and it introduces a new character–Denver Art Museum painting conservator Lily Sparks.
For those who aren’t familiar with her, Stephanie Kane is a lawyer and award-winning author of four crime novels. Born in Brooklyn, she came to Colorado as a freshman at CU. She owned and ran a karate studio in Boulder and is a second-degree black belt.
After graduating from law school, she was a corporate partner at a top Denver law firm before becoming a criminal defense attorney. She lives in Denver with her husband and two black cats.
Two earlier books, Extreme Indifference and Seeds Of Doubt were both Colorado Authors League Awards winners. Extreme Indifference also won the Colorado Book Award for Best Mystery.
Stephanie is also holding a launch event for A Perfect Eye at Tattered Cover (LoDo) on Thursday, Sept 5 at 7 p.m.
A full review follows this email Q & A with Stephanie, who is quite frank and open about the reasons she took a break. Stephanie’s story is as compelling as some of the books she writes. Check it out.
Question: Before we get to A Perfect Eye, could you tell us about your hiatus from writing—or at least, publishing? Why did you stop and what drew you back—and how does it feel to be back? What have you been doing in the interim?
Stephanie Kane: Before I wrote crime novels, I taught karate and practiced law. I turned to writing to scratch an itch.
The impetus for each of my novels has been an experience or idea that bothered me, and the only way to work through it was to invent characters, put them in intolerable situations, and see where they came out. In 2005, three things made me put down my pen for what I thought was for good.
I’d published four crime novels: a stand-alone murder mystery called Quiet Time, and three legal thrillers starring dyslexic criminal defense lawyer Jackie Flowers. My second two-book contract was at its end, and my agent suggested switching to a new series heroine who was a fitness instructor. I could use my karate background, she said, and sprinkle fitness tips throughout the story. That made my decision to take a hiatus easy. Writing is hard enough; how could I write about something I didn’t care about?
In truth, I’d come to the end of the road with Jackie Flowers. The thing about Jackie was she was a better lawyer because she couldn’t read. The subtle and not-so-subtle pressure—internal and external—to ratchet up the stakes in each book by throwing worse and worse things at her was eating at me. I was becoming alienated not just from Jackie, but my own writing. But I wasn’t going to replace my dyslexic lawyer with a fitness instructor.
As I was trying to figure out what to do next, the second thing happened. A cold case detective from Arapahoe County e-mailed me. A witness in a 30-year-old murder case had read Quiet Time and came forward with a confession the killer had made. A grand jury was being empaneled to look into the case. Would I testify?
Quiet Time was inspired by one of those experiences I couldn’t shake: the brutal murder of a woman whose son I married in 1973. Back then, her husband (my father-in-law) was indicted; on the eve of trial, the charges were dropped. The case haunted me long after that marriage ended. Twenty years later I got the court record and fragments of the DA’s file. On them I based my highly fictionalized story. The cops never interviewed me in 1973. Now I told them what I knew. I didn’t realize it would suck up the next eight years of my life.
The third thing was the defense made Quiet Time the center of its case. Because my novel was inspired by a true crime in which I was a witness, they subpoenaed all my drafts and notes. Claiming the book was nonfiction, they argued each draft was a separate factual statement they could use to impeach my testimony at trial. Ultimately an excellent lawyer of my own—assisted by an English Lit prof—convinced the judge that all fiction originates in life, but that doesn’t make it fact. But subpoenaing my written thoughts took a toll. My hiatus became permanent until 2013, when my former father-in-law put a shotgun to his head and fired.
What drew me back to writing was a story I wanted to tell: that one.
Question: What was the hardest thing about diving back into the field?
Stephanie Kane: Two things: how much the field had changed, and how much I’d changed. Writing is a muscle; if you stop using it, it atrophies. And not only were there fewer bookstores and publishers, gurus with secrets to writing bestsellers were everywhere. Not only did I have to get back into the groove, I had to fight the insecurities this new wave of experts induced. Being impressionable (and desperate), I initially found the algorithms seductive. But there’s no algorithm to scratching an itch. Common sense and why I write took over, and I embraced the hard work of writing again.
Question: Either you were an art history major or a successful art forgery expert on the side, but A Perfect Eye relies on lots of inside knowledge of the art world and the Denver Art Museum. How’d did you go about the research for this one?
Stephanie Kane: I’m a research junkie. I read everything I could find about art forgers and Gustave Caillebotte, and treatises on Impressionism, art conservation and painting technique. I went to lectures and shows at museums, interviewed art curators, conservators and docents, and visited conservation labs.
Question: Is Lily Sparks modeled after a specific person? How did you go about developing her character? And what did you learn from your previous protagonists, specifically Jackie Flowers, as you shaped your new one?
Stephanie Kane: I’m drawn to characters like Jackie who see the world through a different lens. Paintings conservator Lily Sparks was trained in the art of observation by her father and raised to believe she has a “perfect eye”. But every gift or trait has a downside. Being hyper-observant can blind you to the meaning of what’s right under your nose.
Lily was actually inspired by a real person, Amy Herman. Herman is an art historian who wrote Visual Intelligence. She trains med students, FBI agents, cops and lawyers in the art of perception: how to improve their diagnostic and investigatory skills by studying paintings in museums. I thought that was a pretty cool skill set for a detective.
Question: Why Caillebotte? Dumb follow-up: is Seven a real Caillebotte?
Stephanie Kane: Because I write to explore what bothers me—in A Perfect Eye, who gets to call himself an artist, the desire for recognition, and the relationship between truth and art—it never occurred to me not to use a real painter in my story. I picked Caillebotte because I love Impressionists, and I was drawn to his backstory.
Caillebotte was trained as a lawyer but bucked his wealthy father by becoming an artist. Critics savaged him, and even his peers found him eccentric. He never achieved the acclaim of Degas, Renoir or Monet, but he secured their legacy by buying their paintings and willing his collection to the French state. He also had a lover who had two personas and went by two different names.
I did invent Seven, however. When Caillebotte retreated to an estate outside Paris to lick his wounds, he painted six landscapes of the countryside. Why not a seventh? One ploy forgers use is to invent a new, “lost” painting which appears to belong to a series the real artist painted. Then they go back and seed the record with tantalizing hints that the painting’s out there waiting to be found. That’s what the forger in A Perfect Eye does.
Question: There are some nifty twists in A Perfect Eye. Do you plot this all out ahead of time or just start writing? Has that process changed since book one?
Stephanie Kane: I’m an outliner, not a pantser. That said, I use my outlines as a guide, not a destination. In the heat of writing, the best thing that can happen is abandoning them. If you get stuck, they’re an old friend to whom you can return.
My outlining process has evolved, but not by much. After being away from writing for so long, when I came back to it I questioned everything about my process. My outlines felt clunky and outdated, and nobody seemed to be talking about subtext or beats. But when I abandoned my model, the scenes in my new manuscript lost the crisp cause-and-effect that my outlines had demanded. I returned to the old way but streamlined it. I guess what I’ve learned is to be open to new ways but to respect my own process. Outlining is one step in the process. The way you outline or write is an expression of how you think.
As for plot twists, they’re a moving target. I made changes to A Perfect Eye right up to the pub date. When it was in galleys, I switched the order of certain chapters to hone the suspense. That required other changes too, but I was glad I did it. Once it’s in print it’s too late.
Question: Several chapters are from the antagonist’s point of view; how did you get inside the head of a forger?
Stephanie Kane: I did a lot of research on art crimes and forgers. Forgers are fascinating because the really good ones aren’t in it for the money. They do it to prove the experts wrong. Therein lies their downfall: once they succeed they want recognition, to have their cake and eat it too. The true irony is that what they create isn’t art. It’s an imitation. Without a real painter to copy, they are nobody. They also tend to meet bad ends.
I settled on a forger for my antagonist, but I wanted a real one to inspire him and bring him to life. Eric Hebborn was a forger who hit all the marks.
A British painter who trained at the Royal Academy of the Arts, Hebborn forged Old Master paintings. He sought revenge against the art world because critics called his own works “derivative”, “labored” and “self-conscious”. His rationale was people believe what they want to believe. He was so arrogant he wrote The Art Forger’s Handbook, a manual for forgers. In 1996, shortly before it was published, Hebborn was attacked and killed on a street in Rome. His murder is still unsolved.
I bought and read Hebborn’s book. His tricks of the trade include modern recipes for period-authentic pigments and ink. Hebborn loved to talk about himself, and to go deeper into his head, I watched him being interviewed at length on You Tube. Listening to him gave me his grandiosity and rhythm. He passed the audition for my antagonist’s part with flying colors.
Question: In your excellent Writer’s Digest piece about using “reality” as inspiration for stories, you talk about the spectrum of good and evil, that “good” is relative. How did you decide where to place the imperfect Lily on this spectrum and how did you develop her list of, let’s say, transgressions?
Stephanie Kane: Lily is definitely on the good end of the spectrum. She also had to be at least as flawed as the antagonist, not just to create her character arc but to force her to up her game. If she had her act together from the beginning, why read the book? As for her transgressions, let’s just say certain members of my family might recognize some of them.
Question: What’s next?
Stephanie Kane: Another Lily Sparks adventure, this time involving 20th century American realist painter Edward Hopper. His work gives me the creeps.
More: Stephanie Kane’s website.
Lily Sparks, the Conservator of Paintings at the Denver Art Museum, never gets tired of gazing at Fields of the Gennevilliers Plain, a painting by Gustave Caillebotte. The painting had been lost for more than a century. Lily likes the “light cloud canopy” under which Caillebotte painted. She likes the sense of drama in the piece, including the figure of man in a brimmed hat hurrying home.
The painting is also known as Seven. To Lily Sparks it “reminded her that nature was fickle and Eden an illusion. That in the blink of an eye, what she thought she knew could vanish and all she held dear could be lost.”
By chapter three of A Perfect Eye, Lily Sparks’ eye is taking in a much less appealing sight—the murdered body of the museum’s chief benefactor, George Kurtz. (Seven, in fact, was hanging in the Kurtz Building.) Still, Sparks’ attention to detail isn’t affected. Squeamish? Not Lily.
“Propped on an upholstered chair against a wall papered in celadon silk with gold leaves, Kurtz stared imperiously. His head was intact, and his thinning silver hair was parted at the side and darkened and slicked with brilliantine … From the chest down he was riven in two.”
As she studies the scene, Lily asks for the lights to be dimmed and the fan turned off—too distracting. She is taking in every scrap of information. The cops are done. Lily wants to linger and study. She can’t get the image out of her head. Later, she remembers the “geometric slashes and pointillist pricks, intestines dabbed on a green silk wall patterned with leaves.”
Stephanie Kane’s latest mystery-thriller takes us behind the scenes of the Denver Art Museum to follow a character who has such keen visual sensibilities that she is known for her ability to spot a forgery, even one with “impeccable” provenance. Kane’s rich portrait of Lily’s unique talent is detailed and fascinating, particularly as she walks us through Lily’s evaluation of a Degas.
“Lily touched the canvas gently, mindful of her oath: First do no harm. Surgeons buried their mistakes; conservators hung them on the wall. Early in her career, she’d exorcised any vestige of a cavalier nature. Now she never picked anything up without first assessing how it was constructed and should be handled.”
Lily’s long-ago boyfriend is FBI agent Paul Riley, who still sparks (yes) some interest. He must be persuaded about Lily’s theory. And, then, Lily sees something in Seven. Those shapes. The patterns from the murder. It’s a sterling moment, observation as realization. (Caillebotte was an impressionist, a contemporary of Monet and Degas; Seven is Kane’s imagination. A Perfect Eye includes plenty of interesting tidbits of Caillebotte appreciation.)
Floating around Lily Sparks’ personal life are her widowed father Harry, co-workers, and a docent trainee, a “provisional” in museum lingo, named Nick. A Perfect Eye has a nifty cast of quality suspects, all viewed by Lily with the same eye she gives everything. She lives by a mantra—avoid subjectivity, stick to what you can see, quantify intangibles, focus. Kane also takes us inside the point of view of a truly vile forger, whose attention to detail might only be matched by someone who is talented enough to be a conservator of paintings.
But it’s Lily Sparks who drives the story. Her smarts, her keen eye. Even with the killer cornered, she’s cool enough to notice that the brushstrokes on a painting are decent, but lifeless. Lily Sparks is no copy. She’s the real deal.